12.04.2021

Zoom Lens Paradise. An overabundance of multi-focal happiness.

dusk. Leica CL. Sigma 18-50mm. Hand held. 

It's Saturday morning. I've just gotten back from a lovely swim practice and ate a delicious breakfast. I had a nice week of photography and I'm not even that angry concerning Charlie Martini's dreadful post about the Leica CL. We'll send him back for additional therapy and I'm sure it will all work out just fine. As punishment though the VSL disciplinary committee has mandated that he spend the rest of 2021 having to shoot with nothing but a Sony camera and mid-brow zoom lens. We can already feel his pain...

I had an interesting assignment on Thursday and it started me thinking about one of the real bright spots in the photography industry. That would be the maturation and perfecting of what we usually called "standard" zoom lenses. These include lenses that start as wide as 24mm and go to as long as 120mm. Some are available with focal lengths of 24-70mm, some are 24-105mm, and Nikon set an early bar with their really nice 24-120mm lens. The weirdo combination of focal lengths comes from Leica with their 24-90mm lens. But what makes this overall category both fun and useful is that the ranges cover the most used focal lengths for most photographers. And the latest generations of normal zooms, nearly across the board, deliver really good optical results. 

The reason I starting thinking about standard zoom lenses grew out of my recent packing up for Thursday's assignment. I was hired to photograph unique looking, high tech, electric motors. The client was a company I've worked with several times before and this time I'd be photographing on the floor of their assembly facility. The advertising agency was looking for good documentation shots wherein the entire product (bigger than a toaster oven) would benefit from being in sharp focus. The final use of these images is for very large trade show graphics and so I thought it prudent to use my highest resolution camera and my best performing lens.

When I really pondered the requirements of the job I realized that I've come to depend on the flexibility of standard zoom lenses. With past generations of lenses the idea was always to bring a range of single focal length lenses and change between them to change the needed angles of view. Before zooms grew up the prime lenses delivered a higher degree of sharpness than their zoom counterparts. And in almost every case, in decades past, the zooms had more distortion. Not a big deal for most portraits but an important point for industrial product photographs which should be as close to geometrically neutral as possible. I know we can thank in-camera and in-post processing automatic corrections for the distortion corrections (and I'm okay with that) but the increase in sharpness is a result of continuing evolution in zoom lens optical designs and it's real. Along with better manufacturing consistency...

I had three zooms to choose from. The one that's been in the equipment case the longest is the Panasonic 24-105mm f4.0 for the S series cameras. I've got a lot of respect for this lens and its wide range of focal lengths gets me (at the long end) into a very useful portrait space. 105mm is just about perfect for people in general. I use it on cameras like the Sigma fp because the lens has very good, built-in image stabilization for cameras that are part of the L mount alliance but which lack real in-body I.S. The barrel of the lens feels a bit plasticky but the optical performance is so good I'm happy to overlook cosmetics. If I never tried another zoom lens I'd be happy shooting with it all the time. But... I sabotage myself by looking around at other stuff....

The next choice in the gear nest is the newest Sigma 24-70mm f2.8 Art lens. It's a full stop faster and I take it with me when shooting events and such just for that reason. I'm not sure it's any sharper than the Panasonic lens but it does render images with more contrast. It's got a snappy rendition and works well at 2.8 and f4.0. So it's a good choice when you're thinking you want to shoot around 50mm but want to have in reserve the ability to zoom out or crop in a bit to get just the right composition. It's good for wide stuff, great for normal lens shooting but, for me, a bit too short for portraits. Yes, I keep it around for the extra stop and the fact that's it's still nicely sharp at it's widest aperture. 

And that brings me to the lens that I really enjoy using for the kinds of product work I was doing on Thursday. That would be the Leica 24-90mm Vario Elmarit. It's the only lens of the three zooms that doesn't have a fixed maximum aperture; it's f2.8 at the widest focal length setting and progressively becomes slower at you stop down, ending up at f4.0 at the long end of the zoom range. I've used it for a lot of jobs and it's very good at the wider apertures but the reason I use it for product work has nothing to do with fast apertures. Rather, it's the sharpest of the lenses I currently own when I'm working at the other end of the aperture ring. 

To keep product photos acceptably sharp from the front edge to the furthest corner I need to be able to work with my lens stopped down to f11 or f16 and not lose too much sharpness and contrast from diffraction. I've tested all three of the zooms and the Leica is hands down better than the other two at smaller apertures. Like the Panasonic it also adds image stabilization to my camera bodies that lack stabilization. That's a plus. But the reason to pay for it, keep it and use it is what the lens can do when stopped down. 

I shot the bright red electric motors using a tripod and electronic flash with the Leica SL2 and the 24-90mm. The camera's resolution is 47.x megapixels and when using ISO 100-400 there's very little noise floor to consider. When I open the raw files in Photoshop I use the "Enhance" option/feature to double the resolution of the files. The Enhance feature also applies some A.I. enhancement to the structure of the files, which, for product work, is very welcome. 

I've been shooting the camera in the 5x7 format and when post processed with "enhance" the files come out to 15,648 pixels by 11,168 pixels, or about 175 megapixels. This gives me 16 bit files that are 600+ megabytes in size. When I start retouching in layers the files can blossom up to several gigabytes. 

When I work this way it's really amazing at the sheer amount of detail I can see when working at 1:1 or 100%. If you want to judge diffraction in an image taken at smaller apertures I can't think of a better test than this. And I've run a few tests between these lenses and few primes that I use a lot. The one lens I have that's a bit better than the Leica zoom for small aperture/low diffraction work is the Sigma 70mm f2.8 Art Macro lens. I like that one a lot but few of my jobs work out the way I want them to if I'm limited to one focal length. And, in truth, the Leica lens is not far behind.

I've toyed with getting rid of the other two zooms but I have situations in which each one brings something unique to the table. The Leica is the performance champ but it comes at the high cost of very large size and ponderous weight. When I want to travel light but still have a full frame camera and a great zoom range I always reach for the Panasonic. It's by far the lightest of the three. If I'm in that available light/normal lens mode I switch to the Sigma Art zoom and shoot wide open. But when there's money on the table and the clients tell me in advance that they'll be making very large trade show prints I always reach for the Leica 24-90mm Vario Elmarit. 

The differences between the lenses represent small percentages of increased performance. If I was limited by budget I could make any of the three work. In fact, it's hard to see much difference between them with 24 megapixel cameras and medium apertures. And that's the space within which we work most of the time. It's really when you start to push the limits more that you see the interface between tonalities sharpen up a bit and you start to more clearly see on screen details in texture that you would never see when just looking directly at the object you might be photographing. 

It's nice to have a choice but just as nice to realize that you don't really need to choose. Any of the products will work well. Even the limited range of the Sigma 24-70mm. In the days when camera res was much lower we approached cropping with much trepidation but with 47 or 61 megapixels of sensor resolution I can shoot at the long end of the Sigma, at 70mm, for a portrait and then crop it down to exactly what I wanted when I conceived of the photograph in the first place. That's nice because it gives me more flexibility. 

As to the other end of the zoom range... if you need something wider than 24mm I'd suggest that you are heading into a specialty range and might want to add a different piece of gear. Wishing for a 16-120mm lens with a fast aperture with today's current costs and technology makes something like that a pipe dream. I carry around a 21mm but rarely, rarely, rarely even feel the slightest compulsion to use it. Just doesn't fit with my way of seeing and composing. I don't seem to have "wide angle" eyes. 

I'm coming around to considering my Leica SL2 as a specialty tool. It's great for all the shots that need to be technically excellent and of very high resolution. But, for me, it's just not a day-to-day camera in the way that the original, lower resolution, SL is. The raw files I end up with from the SL2 are too big to deal with when I'm just fooling around and trying to have fun with the camera. Also, there is no real high ISO advantage to the SL2 even when downsampling to the resolution of the 24 megapixel SL size. So, I guess it's all arrows for horses

On another work note: I'm having good, clean fun working with the Godox AD200 Pro flashes as my primary flash equipment. As you know if you've read the last 5400 blog posts, I've worked with Profoto, Elinchrom, Norman, Speedotron and even Alien Bees studio flashes but, with the exception of power, the Godox flashes leave nothing to be desired, image-wise. The ease of portage and the ease of control are wonderful...especially for old dogs who've spent years hauling around heavy systems and even heavier runs of extension cords and power cables. And the low cost of the Godoxes is another big plus.

I was able to carry a small backpack with my cameras, drag a rolling case with three lights and all sorts of modifiers, and carry in a freehand a stand case with three light stands, two umbrellas and one tripod without needing to hire an assistant or even breaking a sweat. That's nice. And a far cry from the days of yore. To which I am loathe to ever return. 

I'd be curious to read which standard zooms are your favorites...

Quick Health Note: I took my doctor's advice (and everyone else who has gone before me...) and got my first dose of the Shingles vaccine (Shingrex?) on Thursday morning. It was kind of a dumb move, logistically, but it worked out. It was the only time I could get by and I was worried that I'd have side effects that would impact my afternoon photo shoot at the motor company.

When I got the last two doses of Covid-19 vaccine I ended up being fatigued each time for a full day. The last thing I wanted to do was fall asleep in the middle of an assignment... I'm happy to report that the dreaded side effects didn't hit me until after dinner. I went through all the yucky stages but mostly dealt with a very annoying headache, a medium grade (but transient) fever, and lots of body aches. It was all over in 24 hours and I'm told that compared to actually coming down with shingles any sort of side effects are like free money by comparison. 

I will say that I skipped swim practice on Friday morning, which is unusual for me, but it seemed more pleasant to just sit quietly in my office, sipping hot coffee and working on various clipping paths for the product photos. Sometimes you just have to listen to your body. 

That's it for now.